On Walter Benjamin


John W P Phillips




Walter Benjamin (1982-1940): critic, journalist, historian, social scientist, philosopher, collector.


Selected Works

 The Origin of the German Mourning Play (1928) is the study of Baroque German “Mourning Play” (translated as “Tragedy” though the mourning play is not tragic in the sense by which we normally understand tragedy) and is an ambitious and complex attempt to chart the secularization of time and the experience of temporality as it manifests in texts for the stage: the idea of the modern (secular time extending infinitely); the idea of theatricality (the “-ability” represented by the theatrical).


The Arcades Project (Passagenwerk) (1927-1939): over 1000 pages of notes, citations, short articles, clippings, images and other fragments in loose juxtaposition, all concerning the 19th century Paris Arcades (covered shopping centres).


 One Way Street (1925-26)

OWS is a modernist classic but not simply an artwork (Benjamin is not an artist or writer in the traditional sense).  It does not belong to any existing genre (certainly not literary genres like novels, poems or plays).  It is made up of aphorisms, notes and observations, short essays, accounts of dreams and reflective descriptions.  The organization is innovative.  Each fragment is collected under a heading or title--often with an at best oblique relation to the text it designates--that seems to have been taken from some visible street sign.  It is, on one level then, a guide through city spaces.

Benjamin’s departure from traditional notions of progress can be seen most starkly in the final section, “To the Planetarium,” in which he gives an account of the key difference between antiquity and modernity.  Guided by the experience of the war (WW1) Benjamin departs from the standard (and Marxist) account of man’s dominion over nature.  The shift has not been one of progressive mastery of natural elements but rather is characterized by a shift in collective attitude (a kind of historical way of being).  The ancients experienced their world in terms of a relation to the cosmos that brought the everyday into contact with the mysterious.  The moderns experience theirs in terms of visual immediacy and technology.

Main concerns focus around the so-called era of high capitalism, which is the immediate consequence of the passage from industrial capitalism.  Topics treated include:

Modernity (as it dates from the early modern era—i.e., Renaissance (Elizabethan and Jacobean if your framework is Britain) and Baroque periods; The passage from 19th century bourgeois culture to 20th century urbanism; Art (classical, bourgeois and high capitalist); Writing (from critic to journalist); The minutiae of the quotidian world; Technology and war; Urbanity and urbanism; Childhood; Dreams; Adverts, placards, pamphlets, newspapers; Spaces (rooms, streets, maps) and buildings.






By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand it manages to assure us of an immense field of action.  Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and our furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly.  Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.  With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.  The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations 236)   



The Collector and the Critic


Benjamin’s work balances, often with paradoxical results, tensions between aspects of experience: the experiences simultaneously of being too late and too early (too soon) in the temporal dimension (c.f. Hamlet’s “the time is out of joint”) and being both distant and close (in the spatial dimension), and anyway of being both temporal and spatial.    The concept of “aura,” which is one of Benjamin’s most influential contributions, is best understood in terms of these tensions or oscillations.  He says that “aura” is a “strange web of space and time” or “a distance as close as it can be.”  The main idea is of something inaccessible and elusive, something highly valued but which is deceptive and out of reach.  Aura, in this sense, is associated with the nineteenth century notions of the artwork and is thus lost, Benjamin argues, with the onset of photography.  At first photographs attempted to imitate painting but very quickly and because of the nature of the technology photography took its own direction contributing to the destruction of all traditional notions of the fine arts.  The stamp and the book are the two images that perhaps best indicate what is at stake.  The enigmatic value that a stamp has for the collector is superseded by the more communal and critical value suggested by the knowledge of books, although books too are objects for the collector.  Both must be set against the bank-note, which simply circulates in a system of exchange and has no value beyond its system.  Finally it is film that is most suggestive for Benjamin.



The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility


Benjamin addresses the phenomena of moving images in cinema and newsreel in his 1936 essay “The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility.”  It is strongly recommended as one of the clearest and most far-reaching of all Benjamin’s works.  It is a rigorously dialectical argument, clearly influenced by his ongoing engagement with Marxism and written with an audience in mind already familiar with the works of his friend Theodor Adorno.  Dialectical thinking involves moving through contraries without ever letting one term gain precedence over its other—or apparent opposite—as most oppositional thinking tends to do.  In dialectics each term only has significance in relation to its apparent contrary or other.  Benjamin begins by assuming the main tenet of dialectical materialism, which states that the the means of production determine the nature of cultural production, or, more technically, the substructure determines the superstructure.  However, he goes on to show that the superstructure changes much more slowly than the substructure, with the effect that cultural phenomena always lag behind the conditions that produce them.  For this reason, he is observing the conditions of present culture at the point of their earliest development and with an eye for the present state of productive (and reproductive) technologies.  His mode of observation (as he puts it) is designed to draw attention to changes in the conditions of production as a way of intervening in the process.  His theses are, thus, regarded as weapons in the war against fascism.



Main Points:


Two modes of observation are regarded as modes of action, the fascist or reactionary and the progressive or revolutionary.  To the fascist mode belongs the attempt to render politics aesthetic, manifested in propaganda as well as by Hitler’s mass rallies and, ultimately, in war, as expressed by Marinetti and the futurists.



Technical/mechanical conditions of reproduction replace earlier conditions of producing and consuming artworks.  Photography does not gradually culminate in the moving images of cinema, but implies cinema and foreshadows it from the beginning, just as the camera obscura foreshadows the fixed image of the photograph.



The destruction of “aura” in mechanical reproduction signals the passage from the artwork as cult (i.e., as a religious object) to the artwork as exhibit (in museum and inevitably in cinema).  The transitions in question occur over vast historical reaches, beginning with cave drawings (magic), moving through religious iconicity (altar paintings and cathedrals), to the post-renaissance cult of beauty.  At each of these stages the cult value of “magic” (occult value) remains the deciding factor in the ideological value of the artwork.  The final stage involves the transition from all residual cult associations to exhibition value (this of course is capitalism’s gradual and then sudden contribution to the development of world history).  One exhibits (puts on display or into performance). 



Aura implies authenticity but there is no authenticity without its destruction in mechanical reproducibility (i.e., the idea of authentic art only emerges when authenticity is a threatened species of artwork).  Reproducible art replaces authenticity with an added extra—unheard of perceptions are made possible.



Aura (the eliminated term) is explained in analogy with the experience of nature (a mountain range or the shadow of a branch perceived in a unique moment) superseded in the experience of mechanically reproduced images, for which, however perfect they are as images, are missing the point of presence—the presence of the object—that gives it its aura.  The difference is like the loss of the presence of the actor in the passage from stage to screen.  But cinema makes so much more possible than the stage can do.  The elimination of aura implies the loss of any the sense of unreachable (divine, mysterious, transcendental) distance.



So the mode of sense perception is irrevocably changed.  The movie takes over from the epic poem the function that architecture has always played: an object is presented for simultaneous collective experience.  The masses have reactionary responses to art (i.e., to Picasso) and progressive ones (e.g., to Charles Chaplin).  The future of a technical mode can be glimpsed in the desire it awakens (e.g., to reproduce images in an increasingly detailed way—with sound and, ultimately, of course, in colour).  And quantity is transmuted into quality: “The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.”






Continental Philosophy: Messianism and Marxism

Benjamin draws together a number of strands that have provoked a range of responses, including those of Jacques Derrida, who as in his other readings painstakingly reproduces Benjamin’s texts while highlighting the mystical aspects, to leave a rather magnificent affirmation of absolute alterity (which means otherness). You can find out about Derrida’s Messianic Principle here.


Messianism: each moment in time presents a unique revolutionary possibility.

Franz Rosenzweig (Star of Redemption from 1921), Gerschom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida each have a role in the tradition of Jewish thought in the 20th century.  


Marxism: a materialist conception of history (and the love affair with Asja Lacis)

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (and The Frankfurt School); Georg Lukacs; Bertold Brecht each have a part to play in the tradition of 20th century Marxist Aesthetics


Continental Philosophy: The tradition, especially in Germany, from Immanuel Kant and including the German Romantics (Goethe and the Schlegel Brothers) F. W. J. Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel to 20th century philosophy, Edmund Husserl and his prodigious student Martin Heidegger (whose work compares in striking ways with that of Benjamin).



Helpful Links

For Klee’s Angelus Novus and Benjamin’s Commentary on it (as “the Angel of History”) click on this image:




Images of Camera Obscura Rooms

Modernism and Film

A hypertext version of Benjamin’s Arcades Project


Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate


The Dialectics of Allegoresis: Historical Materialisms in Benjamin’s Illuminations

Illuminations: The Critical Theory Web Site


Here William N. Northcutt uses his reading of Benjamin to read Ezra Pound (!)—quite interesting.


Reclaiming the Fragments: On the Messianic Materialism of Walter Benjamin By Stephen Bronner




The Website of JWP